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How Egypt’s Michele Bachmann Became President and Plunged the Country Into Chaos

Posted on Jul 1, 2013
AP/Khalil Hamra

A protester holds an Egyptian national flag as he and others attack the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in the Muqattam district in Cairo.

By Juan Cole

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi may or may not survive Sunday’s massive protests, organized by the youth Rebellion (Tamarrud) Movement. They are, nevertheless, a milestone in modern Egyptian history and a warning to him about his arrogant and highhanded style of governing from his fundamentalist base. Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, represents the equivalent of the American tea party in Egyptian politics—captive to the religious right, invested in austerity and smaller government, and contemptuous of workers and the political left. In his first year in office, the nation’s first freely elected head of state has squandered Egyptians’ willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt. He has acted like the president of the somewhat cultish Muslim Brotherhood, rather than like the president of the whole country. Here are the major errors he has made, which have polarized Egypt and created a severe crisis that some observers worry could turn into a civil war.

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On taking office in summer 2012, Morsi did not appoint a government of national unity. He named no politicians from other major parties to important cabinet posts, nor did he reach out to the revolutionary youth. Although he made a neutral technocrat, Hisham Qandil, his prime minister, he put members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in charge of key cabinet posts. He thus created the impression that he was trying for a “Brotherization” of the government.

Despite Egypt’s sagging economy, Morsi did not make stimulating it his first priority, and instead tried to please the International Monetary Fund with austerity policies, rather on the model of the Mariano Rajoy government in Spain. The Brotherhood’s class base is private business, whether small or large, and Morsi has been distinctly unfriendly to the demands of labor unions and to those of the public sector, which account for half of the country’s economy. In 2009, economists such as Paul Krugman warned that Barack Obama’s stimulus was far too small. Morsi, steward of a much more fragile economy, put forth no stimulus at all.

Once he became president, Morsi had an opportunity to address the inequities in the constitutional drafting committee, which was disproportionately in the hands of fundamentalist Muslim Brothers and Salafis, marginalizing liberals, leftists, women and Coptic Christians. He had promised that the constitution would be consensual, but that body was highly unlikely to produce a widely acceptable organic law for the nation. Morsi let the unfair composition stand, and he appears to have been afraid that it would be struck down by the courts (it finally was, long after it mattered, in the spring).

In November 2012, Morsi abruptly announced on television that he was above the rule of law and his executive orders could not be overturned by the judiciary until such time as a new constitution was passed. He seems in part to have been trying to protect the religious-right-dominated constitutional drafting committee. His announcement enraged substantial sections of the Egyptian public, who had joined to overthrow dictator Hosni Mubarak precisely because the latter had held himself above the rule of law.


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In response to the massive demonstrations that his presidential decree provoked, Morsi pushed through a constitution that is unacceptable to a large swath of Egyptians. Even though two dozen members of the drafting committee resigned to protest key provisions of the draft constitution, which they saw as back doors for theocracy, Morsi accepted the Brotherhood/Salafi draft and presented it to the nation in a countrywide referendum. Egypt’s judges, who are supposed to preside over and certify the balloting, went on strike, but the president forged ahead anyway. Only 33 percent of voters went to the polls, many of them supporters of the president. The constitution was passed, but much of the country clearly was uncomfortable with it. Morsi’s promise of a consensual document was hollow. The referendum could not be certified as free and fair by international standards.

All the trouble Morsi caused by announcing himself above the law and ramming through a controversial constitution with some theocratic implications caused a new round of demonstrations and instability, which harmed Egypt’s prime fall-winter tourist season. Tourism represents 11 percent of the Egyptian economy and employs more than 2 million professionals, but travelers looking for pyramids, not protests, have stayed away the last two years. In 2011, tourism was off by a third. Even as visitors began coming back this spring, they spent less money than they would have three years ago, since hotel and other prices have fallen. I was told by Marriott employees in Egypt when I was there in early June that visitors are now mostly going to enclave sites such as Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, not to Cairo and Luxor on Pharaonic tours. They said that tourism from the Gulf oil monarchies was moribund (Morsi has bad relations with the United Arab Emirates, and besides, many Gulf travelers had been trying to escape the stifling atmosphere of fundamentalist governments in Egypt’s easygoing cabarets, many of which have closed or canceled belly dance performances). The falloff in tourism revenue has cost Egypt billions in income and foreign currency reserves. The Brotherhood, made up of religious fundamentalists, appears not very interested in the tourist sector, which depends after all on liquor, cabarets, beaches and bikinis or on foreigners’ fascination with ancient Egyptian idolaters—i.e., on everything Muslim fundamentalism stands against. The instability also harmed foreign investment, even from the Gulf oil states, since no one wants to build a tourist hotel or office building that may not make money under Brotherhood policies.

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